December 14, 2015
From gracing elementary school birthday parties to causing a nearly decade-long national obsession, the cupcake has quite a history.
The First Cake Gets Cupped
While the origins of the cupcake remain foggy, the dessert was first documented in 1796 in Amelia Simmons American Cookery. The cupcake resurfaced in the 19th century, this time holding two meanings.
Before the invention of the muffin tin, small cakes were baked in individual ramekins, hence the name cupcake. Meanwhile in Britain, they coined these tiny cakes, “fairy cakes,” thanks to their size.
Cupcakes, also called Number cakes, referred to a new style of cake which they made by measuring out the ingredients by volume, rather than weight. The easy-to-remember recipe required one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs.
By the turn of the century, muffin tins had been invented, and cupcakes, as we know them, became increasingly popular, thanks to their quick baking time and minimal ingredients required. In 1919, Hostess unveiled the first commercial cupcake – their signature chocolate cake with white icing, called surprisingly, the CupCake.
__Sex And The City Make Them The “It” Dessert__
Nearly a century later, Sex and the City catapulted the cupcake into new territory. While Carrie Bradshaw’s character is known best for her penchant for Manolo Blahniks and cosmopolitans, her biggest influence may have been on these sweet treats.
The camera zooms onto Carrie taking a massive bite out of a pink frosted cupcake in front of Magnolia Bakery in the West Village, which lead to throngs of dedicated women standing in a line that snaked around the block in the hopes of having their very own Carrie Bradshaw moment, cupcake in hand.
For the next decade, it seemed there was no limit to when the cupcake craze would die.
The Cupcakes Popularity Explodes
While Magnolia Bakery’s popularity continued to soar, other cupcake shops sprung up across the country.
After a trip to New York in 2002 where Candace and Charles Nelson tried Magnolia Bakery’s lauded cupcakes, the couple decided to open their own shop in Beverly Hills, which they named Sprinkles. The LA Times dubbed Sprinkles, “the progenitor of the haute cupcake craze,” as it was one of the first bakeries that solely sold cupcakes.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the bunch was Crumbs Bake Shop, which started out as a neighborhood bakery in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and rapidly expanded to 79 locations across the country.
Another wildly popular cupcake centric-shop, Georgetown Cupcake, which originated in DC, claimed to sell over 3,000 of their gourmet cupcakes per day.
Cupcake mania wasn’t limited to bakeries alone - The Food Network dedicated an entire show to the craze called Cupcake Wars, which aired for 9 seasons.
The Smell of Frosting Hangs In The Air
Right on the heels of the recession, Slate contributor Daniel Gross wrote a story in 2009 predicting the crash of the cupcake bubble.
While some bakeries began diversifying their product offerings, others couldn’t do enough to stay afloat. Crumbs, which in its heyday fetched $13 a share on the stock exchange, was the first to crumble.
The company abruptly shuttered their doors in July of 2014, only to go through a slew of legal battles in an effort to reopen a handful of the most promising locations that October.
While dietary fads are nothing new (hello, Atkins!), the cupcake craze changed the dessert game. As cupcake popularity began to dwindle, donuts took center stage.
Dominique Ansel Bakery took the trend one step further, creating a hybrid between a croissant and donut, aptly named, the Cronut.
From hours-long lines to even spawning a Cronut black market, the hysteria surrounding the Cronut made the once long lines at Magnolia Bakery look like child’s play.
After two years, the Cronut’s popularity too has dwindled. While there are sure to be countless food fads that follow, perhaps entrepreneurs and investors will wise up to the inevitable trajectory of a trend.
Popularity will rise and fall, and in the best cases be cyclical. In the meantime, you have a good chance of getting your cupcake fix at the next office party.